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That’s the question Nick Timiraos of the Wall Street Journal raised in a recent article on the findings of a study by the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), in which the agency investigated the impact that hitting the nation’s debt ceiling has had in the past.
The question is, of course, relevant today because the U.S. government has once again hit its debt ceiling. Since March 16, 2015, the nation’s total public debt outstanding has been held steady at roughly $18.152 trillion, as the U.S. Treasury has employed its so-called “extraordinary measures” to play a shell game to keep the total national debt below its statutory limit.
That’s not how the bureaucrats who work for the federal government would prefer to do things, however. So on their behalf, the GAO has proposed three options for the U.S. Congress to consider implementing, which would end their inconvenience:
Option 1: Link Action on the Debt Limit to the Budget Resolution
This is a variation of a previously used approach under which legislation raising the debt limit to the level envisioned in the Congressional Budget Resolution would be spun off and either be deemed to have passed or be voted on immediately thereafter.
Option 2: Provide the Administration with the Authority to Increase the Debt Limit, Subject to a Congressional Motion of Disapproval
This is a variation of an approach contained in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Congress would give the administration the authority to propose a change in the debt limit, which would take effect absent enactment of a joint resolution of disapproval within a specified time frame.
Option 3: Delegating Broad Authority to the Administration to Borrow as Necessary to Fund Enacted Laws
This is an approach used in some other countries: delegate to the administration the authority to borrow such sums as necessary to fund implementation of the laws duly enacted by Congress and the President. Since laws that affect federal spending and revenue that create the need for debt already require adoption by the Congress, Congress would still maintain control over the amount of federal borrowing.
The Bipartisan Policy Center has projected that because tax revenues this year were better than expected, the U.S. Treasury Department can keep playing its debt ceiling shell game with the accounts it controls well into November or even December 2015 before it runs out of money to play its game.
Then again, if the federal government simply stopped spending more money than it can collect in revenue, the shell game would never even have to be played.